Monday, February 29, 2016

Conservatism According to Corey Robin

I have been re-reading Corey Robin's The Reactionary Mind. According to this book, defending arbitrary hierarchies is the first priority among conservatives. They believe:

  • Workers should obey their masters.
  • Wives should obey their husbands.
  • Downtrodden ethnic groups should obey socially privileged ethnic groups.
  • The laity should obey priests.
  • The non-affluent should show proper deference towards those with great wealth (who could never be malefactors).

These hierarchies have implications for daily lives, not just political rule. For the right, liberty is liberty for the rulers to do as they will, not for those who suffer what they must.

I deliberately do not write about slavery. According to Robin, conservatism is literally reactionary. Conservatives defend hierarchies that are currently threatened or recently overthrown. They focus on restoring what was recently lost. Maybe this has something to do with widespread fear and resentment on the right.

Conservatives often do not have admiration for the rulers of the ancient regime. If those rulers were willing to do what needed to be done to preserve their power, the threats would never have gotten so far, and losses would not have been suffered. The conservative, unlike his popular and complimentary image, is willing to make radical changes so as to reconstruct society as it once was. This seems to go along with the awareness of some contemporary neoliberals that market societies are not natural formations, but must be constructed and maintained by state power. But is this aping of the left consistent with the conservative's encouragement of anti-intellectualism and stupidity? Perhaps the idea is that only an elite need understand the goal, while widespread ignorance among the masses can only help the cause.

The hierarchies that conservatives seek to defend or restore are not meritocracies, in the sense that those on top are expected to have superior intellect, wisdom, or morals. Rulers should demonstrate their fitness to rule by seizing what they can, in war or business. Maybe this has something to do with why many conservatives endorse the supposed "free market", without worrying about externalities, information asymmetries, transaction costs, or market power. One can also see here an echo of Friedrich Nietzsche's overman.

Much of the above comes from the introduction and first couple of chapters of Robin's book. Much of the rest consists of case studies of particular thinkers and polemicists.


1 comment:

AboutEmancipation said...

I have a slightly different reading, because C Robin uses the word "emancipation".

His argument to me seems that reactionaries are such because they react against attempts to gain emancipation. It could be emancipation against hierarchy, but that is not necessarily the case. There is a subtle but important difference between fighting for emancipation in general and against hierarchies in particular.

My impression is that such an argument was created by C Robin to justify the turn of the Democratic party and in general the USA "official left" into a party that fights for non-economic causes based around "identity"; that politics in general is about freedom of identity rather than economics.

C Robin therefore mentions very often the politics of sexual and gender emancipation, that indeed seems to be far more important to the Democratic party today than the politics of class and economics.

That is the argument about politics being a fight about emancipation seems to me a poor cover for a shift of the Democratic party to a conservative, neoliberal position on economic issues.

The argument than becomes that the first priority of a poorly paid homosexual, or female, or dark skinned, worker is not to become less poor, but to be less discriminated by their white male hetero oppressors, whether poor or wealthy; and this has as an important corollary that a wealthy homosexual, or female, or dark skinned person is as much as a poor one the victim of oppression, by all white male hetero people, whether poor or rich.

That's a very convenient position for a party that has become economically conservative.